Theorising Social Work Research

Researching Social Work as a means of social inclusion Seminar topics

Researching Social Work as a means of social inclusion 6th March 2000 Edinburgh

Observations from the field Possibilities for the co-production of social inclusion David Gibbs Derbyshire CIL

This article is not intended as a research paper, but as topic notes for sharing some aspects of 'third sector' experience that impinge on goals and themes of this seminar series. They may help to identify some useful potential areas of research co-production with third-sector organisations.

DCIL has fifteen years experience supporting the social inclusion of disabled people, using practical applications of a 'social model' of disability based on disabled people's own perceptions and peer support strategies. Expectations and solutions based on this model usually are quite distinct from ones based on alternative models such as rehabilitation, social care, or normalisation.

In this time there has been a range of contacts with the research community, some of which have been the impetus for drawing out key themes for a strategy of co-production. This strategy at present wholly excludes passive research relationships - that is, acting only as an agent for recruiting research subjects/interviewees. At the same time, our organisation's resources permit little in the way of stand-alone primary research. Various action research projects were taken on under a strategy for 'disabled people's research' (1992-95), but since then the main commitment has been to co-production. This was given a harder focus by remarks of Oliver (1997) on the difficulties of making a practical reality of 'emancipatory' research.

The following are examples of active issues, from which I will try to identify obstacles to inclusion and ways these might be overcome by application of the 'co-production' referred to in a previous seminar in the series (Gibbs 1999).

1. Views on using users' views

Research proposals, service plans, and project funding applications alike are increasingly required to identify provisions for obtaining the 'views of users'. While this is on the way to being one of those 'good ideas' (like democracy) that everyone approves of, it seldom has a clear focus. The hapless 'user' may be anything from a mascot to a carrier of someone else's dereliction of responsibilities. Usually the views invited are those of a consumer on issues of quality, where the 'user' is defined in terms of a service or range of alternatives that already exist. They do not extend to the views of a citizen on what provision is needed in the first place.

Where the terms of reference of users' views are clear, correspondingly firm consistent statements emerge (Harding & Beresford 1996; material from the 1997-99 'Shaping Our Lives' project). Equally, prescribing input only as a 'consumer' may be used to silence other terms of reference, and especially ones of full social inclusion. The focus of organisations that belong to social movements, like the disabled people's movement, is likely to be less on consumerism than on citizenship (Barnes 1997), less on the quality of designated services than on access to the mainstream of services and the life of communities.

2. The hit and miss of convergence

The different models referred to earlier, in which understanding of disability, expectations, and solutions combine in highly correlated ways, change over time in their relative importance but also have long periods of co-existence. The different value bases, understandings of relationship, and uses of language are replete with potential conflict. At the same time, increasing emphasis on partnerships as a basis for development funding lends great incentive to finding a basis for co-working.

As an example, there was a stage when Derbyshire CIL struggled through some four years of negotiation to reconcile its objectives of 'integrated living' with a practical need to contract with the Social Services department as a 'provider'. The opportunity arose to make this stage of changing relationships the subject of a doctoral study, since published (Priestley 1999). More applications along similar lines might become a very active field of action research, analysing and in the process developing new relationships and their specific outcomes. Insights would be gained on questions that must intrigue all of us: for instance, how much cultural diversity and pluralism is in the system, and how much centralised ideology.

3. Learning exchange

Another factor that keeps tracks separate or divergent is the separation of hierarchical and 'matrix' modes of organisation. Work based on peer support, with goals of independent living and social inclusion, has reached a stage nationally when it needs recognised competences and qualifications. These will not fit readily, however, with more established ways of working to fixed outputs and objectives. They have much more stress on reflective practice and objectives derived from the goals of people being worked with.

Development work is in progress to develop these qualifications and appropriate training for independent living support workers. There may be many more kinds of occupation in relation to creating inclusive communities that need to be developed within a 'social economy', and many opportunities for action research in the process. This experience in turn can be expected to influence existing ways of working and training, up to and including a fundamental revision of professions, responsibilities and training methods (Finkelstein and Stuart, 1996).

4. Evidence and rigour

Similar issues of diversity apply to matters as varied as the evaluation of research proposals and the monitoring of local service agreements between public authorities and the third sector. Experiences of the latter are increasingly of criteria so narrowly interpreted that independent development functions and goals set in terms of outcomes for people may cease to be fundable by those routes. Emancipatory models of research may be similarly threatened by narrow interpretations of evidence in the criteria applied to research proposals.

Local work has gone a little way towards establishing a counter-position. Basically, this would scrutinise any form of service for or research relating to disabled people in terms of its potential to produce either:

1. added opportunities to realise ordinary life goals of individuals, or

2. deconstruction of disabling obstacles in communities (whether physical, administrative, or cultural).

As a further counter to a reductionist detachment from human contexts, our organisation would withhold participation in any project with objectives dissociated from immediate outcomes for people.

To develop this position, and supplant performance measures that commodify and oppress people, we need stronger measures of process and outcome. A few good indicators have emerged, for example in the brief for a project on 'Measuring Disablement in Society' (Policy Studies Institute 1995). To apply them, the next stage is local action research to develop systems by which disabled people can audit the inclusiveness of their communities and the contribution of their services towards that goal.


Barnes, M. (1997), Care, Communities and Citizens. Longman.

Finkelstein, V. and Stuart, O. (1996), 'Developing new services'. In Hales, G. (ed.) Beyond Disability: towards an Enabling Society. Sage. London.

Gibbs, D.G. (1999), Disabled People and the Research Community. ESRC seminar series: Theorising Social Work. Seminar 2: Who owns the Research Process?

Harding, T. and Beresford, P. (1996), The Standards We Expect: what service users and carers want from social services workers. National Institute for Social Work.

Oliver, M. (1997), Emancipatory research: realistic goal or impossible dream. In Barnes, C. & Mercer, G. (eds), Doing Disability Research. The Disability Press, Leeds.

Policy Studies Institute (1995), 'Measuring Disablement in Society', working papers 1-5.

Priestley, M. (1999), Disability politics and community care. Jessica Kingsley, London.